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Influence of Surveillance on the Privacy of Citizens

Cara is a student at Florida Atlantic University working towards a BS in management information systems. She writes in her free time.

Society defines privacy as being free from observation or disturbance from others, but what many do not realize is that they are giving their privacy away. Many adults in today’s world use sites like Facebook or Twitter to inform their close friends of their actions at any given moment. Majority of them believe that this information is only seen by their connections online, but their status updates and daily rants are recorded and screened by the National Security Agency, or the NSA. The NSA is not the only organization doing this. The social media being used will collect data on their users and sell it to companies. These companies often use this insight to find potential customers and create targeted advertisements. Not only is this happening with what we willingly share, but also with information on our whereabouts, internet usage, etc. Peter Singer’s “Visible Man: Ethics in a World without Secrets” reviews the history of privacy in a democracy and delves into surveillance (overt and clandestine) in the modern world. In a democracy like the United States, privacy does not truly exist anymore due to our willingness to give away personal information through social media, the distribution and eventual misuse of this data, and the clandestine surveillance of the government through our use of technology.

An image of Peter Singer

An image of Peter Singer

Through social media and global positioning system (GPS) applications on our mobile devices, we willingly give away troves of personal details. On sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we “allow friends… to know where we are at any time” and tell them all of our emotions and actions at any given time (Singer 425). When I was younger, my mom did not let me go on any social media, because she knew that anything posted online might as well be posted on the front of the New York Times. This is because once something is on the internet, it never goes away, and almost anybody has access to it with minimal effort. Once I was allowed on social media, I saw how willing, and even excited, some people were to inform everyone they knew of their current whereabouts. The government and the social media being used collect what is posted on the internet and use it to search for illegal activity, terrorism, and any other national security threats. This is smart because, without having to use semi-illegal methods, they can gather insight on potential suspects/customers.

Information collected and analyzed by social media is often sold to outside companies as a way to make more money. Social media often give “corporations access to information about our financial circumstances and our spending habits, which are often used to target us for ads or to analyze our consumer habits” (Singer 425). The companies that sell our personal details do not break any laws by doing this. We agree to it when we accept the terms and conditions. Humans, by nature, will usually not read a hundred-page document, which leads to them missing some important details that they agree to. There have been many times when I have just pressed accept instead of at least skimming the terms and conditions for any given application. The information collected online could be misused “by corporations seeking to profit from more detailed knowledge of potential customers” when they create targeted advertisements, specific to their audience (Singer 427). When advertisements are targeted to a specific audience, they make the product being publicized more desirable, by giving case sensitive reasoning for the person to purchase it. The main problem with this is not the fact that our data is given away to other companies and the government, but rather the fact that the people are not aware of it. The terms and conditions of everything is written in a way that makes it almost impossible to read and understand. We are constantly agreeing to things we would likely not be okay with if we knew about it.

Not only does the government utilize what is provided willingly by citizens, but also collects some information of its own through questionable methods that are not published or advertised. There is a surplus of “government organizations involved in spying on our own citizens, both at home and abroad,” all under the guise of ‘national security’ (Singer 425). They track the GPS location of our phones, observe our internet usage, listen in on phone calls, read text messages, and invade our privacy in many other ways, unbeknownst to us as citizens. As Mikko Hypponen, a computer security expert and columnist for BetaNews and Wired, said, governmental surveillance “is not about the government collecting information you’re sharing publicly and willingly” but rather “collecting the information you don’t think you’re sharing at all, such as the online searches you do on search engines… or the location of your mobile phone at any given time.” It was not always this way, though. After al-Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist group, hijacked four planes and crashed two into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the entire country was devastated and wondered how something like that could have happened. To prevent a similar event from happening in the future, airport security and surveillance over the phone and on the internet became much more intense. This is when the Patriot Act was enacted, making it legal for the government to tap into phone calls, read text messages, emails, and internet history, without a warrant of any kind, under the guise of ‘the war on terror’. Today, the NSA “intercepts 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, instant messages, bulletin-board postings, and other communications” each day searching for signs of a future terrorist attack (Singer 425). The limited amount of people who are aware of this extra surveillance either are the ones doing it, or firmly disagree with it. It feels like an invasion of privacy, but “if those same powers [of surveillance] were used to foil another 9/11, most Americans would likely applaud” (Singer 427). If the secrecy was taken out of surveillance, there would be much better reactions to it.

Since we give away our personal information, it is then sold, and the government collects even more, privacy does not actually exist anymore in the United States. Everyone posts updates revealing too many personal details, and the social media and government take advantage of this. Not only this, but the government also collects even more through undisclosed methods. They are observing more than the people are made aware of, and this has to change. The best way to do this with the fewest repercussions would be to inform the people of the extra surveillance and maybe even have to get a warrant to do so. When the surveillance is discovered, people react negatively (as expected) and associate this deceitful behavior with the government as a whole. This general mistrust of the government creates an interesting dynamic between the politicians and the citizens themselves. If we can reveal the surveillance and share more personal information willingly, we can change the entire system of government for the better.

Works Cited:

Singer, Peter. “Visible Man: Ethics in a World without Secrets” Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers, 3rd edition, edited by Barclay Barrios, Bedford/St. Martins, 2016, pp. 425-431.

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© 2018 Cara Savoy


J Zod from Nairobi on June 15, 2018:

Interesting article, though it is difficult to read since it is not broken down into smaller paragraphs.

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